Around the world, men predominate in the technology sector. The lack of role models and mentors is the most important hurdle for female leaders. Women have so few positions of authority. As a result, women who are just starting out in their jobs have no role models to look up to. Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, Executive Director of The University of Texas at Dallas’ Cyber Security Research and Education Institute, has worked diligently for over 20 years to mentor female students and colleagues so that they may become leaders in technology. She has recently begun working with high school pupils. She says, “Women should also be encouraged to get into management positions.”
She believes, “We need more women at all levels in tech and for that we have to start educating the girls at a very early age. Women at senior levels have so much to do.”
Below are the highlights of the interview conducted between the World’s Leaders and Bhavani Thuraisingham.
How does your background and experience align with the role at The University of Texas at Dallas?
When I joined the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), I had 24 years’ experience in the commercial industry (Honeywell in Minneapolis), Federal Research Lab (the MITRE Corporation in Boston) and the Federal Government (the National Science Foundation NSF in Washington). My work has focused on the integration of cyber security and data science since 1985. After I finished my three year assignment at NSF, UT Dallas recruited me to establish and head the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute (CSI) as securing cyberspace was one of the strategic areas for them. Our interests aligned very well. Also, being in academia would allow me to work with students, the federal government, the commercial industry, and federal research labs. It’s the best of all worlds.
How would you describe your management style and philosophy?
I come with extensive leadership and management experience. When I was at MITRE, I was head of a department, and I grew the department from 8 to 28 staff, and this meant finding work for the staff whose specialties included mainly data science and cyber security. Therefore, I had the skills to build a very successful Cyber Security Institute. To succeed in management, first and foremost, you have to get the best talent.
I believe in motivating the faculty and students and encouraging them so that they excel in their work. I stress that innovation is the key to our success.
What are The University of Texas at Dallas’ cyber security solutions for hardware and software? How efficient is your organisation from an operational standpoint?
There are two different types of answers to your question. One is the research, development and technology transfer efforts that we carry out as professors together with our students. The other is our work with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at the university, where we give input on the security strategies.
We develop solutions both in hardware and software security. What is unique about CSI is that we have excellent talent in both hardware and software security. With respect to hardware, our colleagues in Computer Engineering focus on providing solutions to hardware Trojans as well as security at the chip level. With respect to software, we focus on several aspects including malware analysis and data privacy.
With respect to our OIT, we have an excellent organisation providing us with state of the art solutions to the cyber security problems that occur in most organisations and providing up to date training materials for employees and students.
What processes do you use to monitor the security threats on your client’s network?
Our clients are our students and the sponsors who fund our research and education activities. We do not provide security services to our clients. We educate our students about the state-of-the-art security solutions and tools, and conduct research with the students to solve challenging problems we are faced with today, such as securing the Internet of Things, including the Internet of Transportation Systems and the Power Grids. Our research is transferred to our sponsors to develop commercial products as well as operational systems. We also create start-up companies to commercialise the technologies we develop.
What are the three things you would like to improve in the organisation?
Here, I speak as the Founding Executive Director of CSI. One of the major challenges I have faced is competing for talent with other areas as the resources are not unlimited.
Members of CSI are part of various departments and each member tries his or her best to recruit talent in various aspects of cyber security. Another area I would like to improve is to have closer ties to the DFW industry.
There are thousands of technology companies in DFW and we do have strong connections with quite a few of them. The third aspect is hiring more US citizen students into our programs.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken as a professional?
I am a Tamil from Sri-Lanka and completed my undergraduate degree in Math and Physics at age 20 back in 1975. Because my father had passed away four years prior, my maternal uncle wanted me to get married right away and arranged my marriage to my husband, who was eight years older at the time. That was a risk, as my graduate education and career essentially depended on my husband.
I was very fortunate as my husband, who was finishing his PhD at the University of Cambridge in England at that time, was very supportive of my education and career. I received my graduate education in England over five years while my husband held research positions, and then we moved to the US in 1980 soon after I finished my PhD and that’s when I started my career in tech.
The second risk was to move from industry to academia. Therefore, mid-career I switched to academia as a tenured professor and started the CSI.
My main goal now is to motivate and mentor women and underrepresented minority groups to pursue careers in tech.
Does your organisation’s corporate responsibility strategy match the availability of your current resources?
I have worked at UT Dallas for 17 years and have been very pleased with our senior administration. More importantly, our Provost and Dean of Engineering are both women. I am seeing more and more women in leadership positions. While our administration is fiscally conservative, they prioritise resources and fund important initiatives. I am also seeing more people from the underrepresented minority communities take leadership roles. Fairness is stressed at all levels. When I first moved to Dallas from Boston after a three year stint in Washington, I thought, What am I doing here? Over the years, I have grown to really like Texas, and that is mainly because of the environment provided by UT Dallas.
Where do you see your company in the next five years?
We have made tremendous progress in cyber security, including integrating cyber security and data science. There are three areas we are focusing on for the next phase as I transition CSI to my junior colleagues. First, to motivate the professors to obtain more patents and be involved in more start-ups to commercialise the technologies they develop. Second, to focus on interdisciplinary research and education.
Last but not least, ensure that a significant proportion of our students are female or from underrepresented minority groups.
What is some of the advice you share with young women entering a male-dominated tech field or any profession?
My advice to young women is to develop technical excellence. This is a must. Next, find mentors who will motivate and encourage you. The mentor could be a senior man or a woman who will also educate you on the corporate culture. More importantly, never give up. Don’t let anyone undermine you, which is sometimes easier said than done. Initially, it was not easy for me. But I made every attempt to work hard, find a mentor, and try my best to ignore negative comments. Over time, I was able to thrive both in industry and academia. Last but not least, during every talk I give to women’s groups in Computer Science (e.g., cyber security, data science), I make it a point to state that Computer Science is a lucrative field and Financial Independence is a MUST for every woman.